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Car reviews - Subaru - Outback - 3.0R 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Car-like behaviour, smoothness of boxer engine
Room for improvement
Jumpiness of gearbox in low gears, squeaks and rattles

26 Feb 2004

EVOLUTION versus revolution. It’s a constant balance in the car game. How far can you push the refining of a car through different generations before you have to start afresh with a blank sheet of paper.

Well, when it comes to the Outback, we get the feeling Subaru is intent on finding out.

The car that defined the original intent of cross-over is now into its third generation, still fundamentally selling the same message as it did from day one back in 1996.

Mechanically it is fundamentally an all-wheel drive, jacked up (for this generation by 55mm to 200mm) Liberty wagon, with a tougher presentation to give it that popular off-road look. It’s a combination that has made it a success story here from the start.

And it’s truly a cross-over in the original sense, offering car-like on-road behaviour with the ability to go off-road – at least moderately so.

For generation three the fundamental line-up continues on unchanged. Subaru offers a choice of 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer engine variants as well as a couple of 3.0-litre flat six choices – the 3.0R and the 3.0R Premium Pack which we are testing here.

And this is where the evolution comes in. Subaru has done a lot of work on the Gen III Outback – just as it has for the latest Liberty – but because it has stuck to that ongoing basic philosophy it’s still fundamentally familiar.

The styling has become that bit tougher with bigger wheelarches and cutaways under the headlights, while Outback is alone in getting a rather industrial two-bar horizontal slotted grille.

It also gets an exclusive bonnet, its own front and rear bumpers, the signature large diameter foglights, roof spoiler and roof rails and side cladding along the base of the doors.

Compared to its predecessor it is also longer by 60mm, there is 20mm more cabin space and it is 25mm wider. It has a wider stance on the road from a 35mm/30mm wider track front/rear.

And to cap off the weights and measures, the towing capacity has been upped to 1800kg, kerb weight has been reduced by 60kg and the centre of gravity lowered by 22mm due to selective pruning of the sheet metal in the extremities around the bonnet and at the back, as well as an alloy rear door and bonnet.

Under the skin, the 3.0-litre engine (one feature not shared between Liberty and Outback) has also had a fair bit of work to bump power by 16 per cent to 180kW, while torque has also increased somewhat from 282Nm to 297Nm.

That extra oomph comes courtesy of variable valve timing and two-stage valve lift, both on the inlet side of the double overhead camshaft, 24-valve engine.

Subaru claims a fuel consumption average of 10.9L/100km, but on the down side that’s on 95 RON premium unleaded fuel. Also, that 64-litre fuel tank is a bit small for serious outback touring.

Independent tests point to a 0-100km/h dash in under 8.0 seconds and a quarter mile in around 16.5 seconds. That’s pretty good for a car in this category driving all four wheels, and indicative of the fact Outback is carrying around 1540kg in kerb weight rather than the two tonnes many other cross-overs/four-wheel drives have to contend with.

Mated to the engine is a new five-speed automatic gearbox with both dog-leg gate and pseudo-manual mode called Sportshift. The combination is an effective one without being perfect, with some sudden shifts in the lower gears under acceleration.

That’s because the 3.0 engine is a bit light on for torque down low (the peak comes at 4200rpm). It’s a feeling exacerbated when using cruise control in hilly areas, the gearbox tending to jump around a bit.

But the engine itself displays some other great characteristics, like a smoothness and quietness (there’s more roar from the aggressively cut 17-inch tyres) that has never before been such a boxer engine attribute.

It gruffs up a bit at the very top end toward the 7000rpm rev limit, but for the most part it’s just a peach.

For people familiar with the turbo Impreza WRX engine and the like, this engine may not be tactile enough because of that loss of growl. But then this Outback, at more than $50,000, is a luxury car and maybe Subaru judged smooth and silent as the way to go here.

The other aspects of the mechanical package are pretty familiar. The MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension (with self-levelling function) is that bit softer and longer-travel than the Liberty, which just means Outback loses front-end traction and understeers that bit sooner and rolls that little bit more.

But it is better than the old H6 for sure, a car which struggled to measure up against its four-cylinder brethren.

The ride is compliant enough, only being challenged on badly broken bitumen, rail crossings and the like. Combine that with light steering and you have an effective round two vehicle, albeit a size smaller than many of its rivals.

Rear seat and luggage space is okay without being great. With no third row option though, you’ll need to look elsewhere if you have three kids or more.

Up front you’ll be well looked after in the Premium's nicely bolstered leather seats, the driver hanging on to a great little leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel.

Most people will get comfortable, although the steering wheel only adjusts vertically. The presentation around the cabin is neat enough, in a combination of light and shade with both faux wood and metal.

Off-road the Outback remains competent, but certainly not the vehicle to tackle serious stuff. It’s all-wheel-drive system consists of a centre planetary differential with front-to-rear proportioning via an electronically controlled multiplate clutch.

Normal set-up is 46/54 front to rear but drive can go almost completely to one end or the other depending on traction conditions.

Throw in the VDC electronic stability control system as standard on the Premium model and you’ve got a rock-solid gravel road commuter, with only the ABS set-up of the brakes any sort of concern – the calibration feels like it takes a while to adjust to the dirt.

But get further off-road and the front and rear overhangs and lack of underbody protection will start to tell. There’s also no low range gearing, Subaru only fitting that to manuals.

Another problem emerged in our test car too: rattles and vibrations. Most disappointing considering the build quality Subaru usually achieves.

VDC is one of a number of standard features the PP has over and above the 3.0R and the four-cylinder Outbacks further down the tree. They also include front and rear curtain airbags, dual front side airbags, eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat, leather trim and a dual sunroof.

And that’s on top of the stuff it shares with the 3.0R - anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, active head rests, dual front airbags, pretensioner and load limiters on the seatbelts, three-point belts and headrests for all seats, height adjustable driver’s seat, climate control air-conditioning, six-stacker CD stereo with steering wheel controls, cruise control, leather-wrapped Momo steering wheel, trip computer, power windows, remote central locking and a 60/40 split folding rear seat. A full size spare is a good move for off-roading.

It’s a long and impressive list. But then Subaru is targetting a long and impressive list of competitors - the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, Mitsubishi Pajero GLS, Toyota Prado GXL, Volkswagen Touareg, Audi Allroad 2.7T, BMW X5 3.0, Honda MDX and Volvo XC90 have all been mentioned as competitors.

To that you can add the Holden Adventra, Toyota Kluger and Ford Territory.

Peruse that list and the Outback still sits at the end closest to the traditional standard ride height car. And that’s evolution at work.

For all the commendable development that Gen III Outback displays, it is no quantum leap forward from its predecessor. That doesn’t make it a bad car – far from it – but in one of the market’s hottest categories it may not be enough to grab attention beyond that ever-loyal bunch of Subaru faithful.

And even then they’ll have to come up with a good argument to choose Outback over the Liberty.

Evolution versus revolution? Next time Subaru needs to go a bit further.

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